Thursday, July 31, 2008

Christmas Horse

Title: Christmas Horse
Author: Glenn Balch

What it's about: Young Ben Darby lives on his family's ranch in Idaho, and he loves it there. He loves working with the horses, but soon he'll have to go stay with relatives in the city so he can attend high school. Not only does Ben have to leave his beloved ranch, but he won't be able to see more of the young wild horse he's been keeping an eye on. However, when Ben comes home for Christmas, he has a surprise waiting for him. His family caught the colt for Ben's Christmas present. Now Ben is determined to train the little colt to be a cow horse and to prove to his father that a wild horse can be worth something.

What I thought: This is actually a pretty good story. Any horse fans should like it, as it doesn't stint on gettin' more than a little technical in those regards. The characters are likable, and it's overall a heartwarming story.

Overall: Worth reading if you ever come across it.

Charlotte's Web

Title: Charlotte's Web
Author: E.B. White

What it's about: Wilbur is a pig who lives in the barn of a farmer by the name of Henry Zuckerman. His best friend is a spider named Charlotte. When Wilbur learns of the usual fate for pigs, that is, to be turned into ham or bacon, Charlotte promises to save him. Charlotte is a clever spider, so she uses her web-spinning abilities to help her friend.

What I thought: This is a good tale of friendship. It's a very sweet story with a slow pace and made richer by its detailed descriptions of the farm and the barn. The characters are cute, and the barn is populated by a diverse bunch of creatures, from the simple Wilbur to Templeton the greedy rat, and the goose and gander with their idiosyncratic way of speaking. The story is a simple one, but it's a very good read.

Overall: This classic is definitely worth checking out.

Baby Island

Title: Baby Island
Author: Carol Ryrie Brink

What it's about: Mary and Jean Wallace are two young sisters who are traveling to meet their father in Australia. Both girls like babies, and when the ship they're on starts to sink, they rescue the babies of two couples who they had been helping to take care of. The two girls and the four rescued babies wash up on a desert island, which they call Baby Island. Thus starts their task of caring for the babies until they are rescued.

What I thought: Okay, so this is a 1930's kids book. It's all about two young, capable Christian girls who love babies. So why did it hold my interest? Jean. The younger sister has some truly funny lines, including one about throwing the baby Jonah off the lifeboat to go along with the Bible story. If any of you are familiar with the character Osaka from Azumanga Daioh, well, that's who Jean reminded me of. Besides Jean, though, the story really is a cute one. It's predictable at times, but it's told with charm.

Overall: If you're going to be an elementary teacher, you could look into this, but serious readers probably won't want to bother.

The Traitor's Gate

Title: The Traitor's Gate
Author: Avi

What it's about: In this historical novel, the Huffam family is in trouble. John Huffam's father has gotten them into debt, and if the family can't pay, they will be thrown into debtors' prison. It becomes known to John that his father's involved in something deeper than just debt, and the only way to save the family is to get to the bottom of the matter. With suspects all around, it looks like the only person John can trust is his new friend Sary the Sneak.

What I thought: This is a really well-written story. The attention to historical detail is great, and it really shows up in the descriptions, giving the story great flavor. There's a nice assortment of characters, from our boy John, who's the only sensible one in his family, to his mother, who reminds me of Mrs. Bennett, to his teacher, a slightly crazy teacher (this guy reminds me of the fellow from Danny the Champion of the World), to Sary, who's spunky and slightly mysterious. The mystery is plotted out quite well, too. There are plenty of clues that you don't get the significance of at first, and the whole thing wraps up with a suitable ending. Makes me eager to read similar stories.

Overall: An engaging book that you won't want to put down until you've finished. I didn't.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Title: Ever
Author: Gail Carson Levine

What it's about: Kezi is a simple girl who loves to weave and to dance. Olus is the god of winds. Kezi's father makes a vow, and it ends up that Kezi will have to be sacrificed to her people's god in a month's time. She and Olus fall in love, though, and they decide that something has to be done. In order to save Kezi, both she and Olus must undergo great trials to prove themselves and their love so that they may always be together.

What I thought: Like all of the books I've read by this author, Ever is a love story. Unlike the other books I've read by her, Ever is not a fairytale. Instead, the setting is kinda biblical. Reminds me of the Old Testament and the excerpts about the Gilgamesh legend I read in high school, as well as the mythology that Snow Crash dug into. Also, kinda like Many Waters, which I should put down on my list as another book to review. Anyway, I think it's a refreshing setting to use for a novel like this. The writing is very simple and descriptive, but it almost seemed too simple to me. Maybe it was the sentence structure, maybe it was the present tense, first-person narration, or the frequency of point-of-view switches. Something about how this story was written brought it down from having an epic style to seeming stilted and stylized. The characters were all right. I liked Kezi, but I couldn't really connect with Olus. I guess I have to say that the book was good, and it had some fun romance in it, but it just didn't seem to have any meat to it, especially compared to the two books I read prior to it, or to the book I just finished.

Overall: Not bad, but I recommend her other books more.

The Shadow of the Wind

Title: The Shadow of the Wind
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon

What it's about: Daniel Sempere and his father run a bookshop. One day, Daniel's father takes him to a mysterious place known as the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and tells him to choose one book to take care of. Daniel chooses a novel called The Shadow of the Wind and immediately falls in love with the story. Intrigued, he tries to find more books by the author, Julian Carax, but he soon learns that Carax's novels are impossible to find, as someone has been going around and destroying them. Daniel delves deeper into the mystery surrounding Julian Carax and finds out that the tragic story is still unfolding even as he himself is caught up in it. With help from old friends and a new love, Daniel just might find his own happy ending.

What I thought: Two notes before we start the review. First of all, this novel is originally Spanish, translated now into English. Second of all, I'd have to give this book an R rating for its content. There's some pretty explicit stuff in here, but it all serves a purpose in the story. Anyway! I have to say that I love this book very much. My one theatre teacher once said that all theatre is about theatre. Well, I don't think I'm qualified to extend the same claim about books, but I do know that The Shadow of the Wind is very much a book about books. You can tell how much the author loves the craft of reading and writing by the loving tangents and book-related metaphors. Plus, you get bonus points for catching all the literary references. I myself noticed a new one this read-through, something from Don Quixote.Additionally, well, the whole story revolves around books and those who write them. The story of Julian and Penelope is morbid and tragic, and Daniel's story is an interesting parallel, as though he is repeating history and following the path of Julian's story himself.

I think the characters are what make this book so interesting. Daniel himself is a relatable narrator, flawed but likable, so we sympathize with him as he bumbles through the book. Fermin Romero de Torres serves as the main comic relief, but he's also a wise fellow who provides Daniel with good advice and friendship. He's very outrageous in his behavior which makes him very fun to read about. Julian is a rather complex fellow, for his part, as we learn more about what he has been through and how he has changed. The characters aren't the only things brought to life in this story. The city of Barcelona is described simply but oh so aptly. In few words, you get a sense not just of what the city looks like, but what it is like. Zafon has a gift for elegant description. I had no trouble picturing the story playing out in my head like a movie, and that's not usually the case with me. The characters, the settings, and the story itself, they all coalesce into an amazing experience of a novel. I find it's best read in the quiet hours of the morning, in the darkness and silence, when there is nothing to distract you from the beauty of the story.

Overall: I feel the word "masterpiece" can be justifiably used to describe this book.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Westing Game

Title: The Westing Game
Author: Ellen Raskin

What it's about: Sam Westing, founder of Westing Paper Products and a very rich man, has died. He calls sixteen heirs to his mansion for the reading of his will, telling them that they each have a chance at inheriting his fortune. Now, Sam Westing had a fondness for games, and he's not making this easy on his heirs. They've got to figure out the solution to the Westing Game by using clues he's left them and by working together. This is easier said than done. Most of the sixteen heirs live in the Sunset Towers apartment building, and their personalities come in constant conflict, making it hard to collaborate on their clues. And where do the mysteries of Sam Westing's tragic past come in?

What I thought: Confusing summary? Perhaps. But the less I say, the better, because you won't want a single thing spoiled for you when you read this. I just have to say that anyone who has not read The Westing Game is missing out on one of the most amazing books they've never read. It's a masterful mystery with memorable characters and delicious humor; it unfolds in such a deft, intricate way. I wish that I could read it for the first time again and remember the experience of having the story come alive for me and discovering all the secrets for myself. This is one of those books that's written for children but can be enjoyed by anyone. That's a mark of a good writer, wouldn't you say? So, the thing that really makes this book stand out is the characters. They vary widely, from Turtle with her braid and her kicking to Madame Hoo, who can't speak English, to Grace Wexler and her airs. And the thing is, you end up liking all of them, including the ones who seem the least sympathetic at the beginning. Grace, Mr. Hoo, and Dr. Deere, for example, all turn out to not be as unlikeable as they initially seem. Also, the plotting of the mystery is just intricate and ingenious. One thing that amazed me was that the foreword in my copy of the book stated that Ms. Raskin wrote the book as she went, not plotting it out beforehand. That takes skill!

Overall: Why are you still reading this? Go grab The Westing Game!

Swan Sister

Title: Swan Sister
Author: Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

What it's about: This here's a second anthology of retold fairy tales. Look up the entry for A Wolf at the Door for the first installment. This book includes "Greenkid" by Jane Yolen, "Golden Fur" by Midori Snyder, "Chambers of the Heart" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, "Little Red and the Big Bad" byWill Shetterly, "The Fish's Story" by Pat York, "The Children of Tilford Fortune" by Christopher Rowe, "The Girl in the Attic" by Lois Metzger, "The Harp That Sang" by Gregory Frost, "A Life in Miniature" by Bruce Coville, "Lupe" by Kathe Koja, "Awake" by Tanith Lee, "Inventing Aladdin" by Neil Gaiman, and "My Swan Sister" by Katherine Vaz.

What I thought: I quite liked "Golden Fur" because it had a very traditional fairy tale feel to it but without sacrificing characterization, as my collections of regular fairy tales seem to. A sense of character is what draws me to retellings rather than the original tales. "Golden Fur" had plenty of traditional elements, but it had its own unique spin on the matters, and that's what drew me. "The Harp That Sang" was pretty dark, pretty straightforward as a fairy tale. It was creepy and well-told. Bruce Coville puts an interesting science fiction twist on the Tom Thumb story with "A Life in Miniature," which seems very much like how I remember his books to be from back when I used to read them in grade school. "My Swan Sister" is an incredibly moving short story, and it was the perfect choice to end the collection. It doesn't resemble a fairy tale too much at first glance, but it definitely has magic to it. "Chambers of the Heart" had a dark feel to it, very reminiscent of the original Bluebeard tale. It's really a very straightfoward retelling, like "The Harp That Sang," but that just adds to its appeal for me. You might notice that the stories that are straightforward retellings are my favorites, and I can't deny it. I also like "The Fish's Story." It's a cute version of the story about the fish who grants wishes. It has a nice heroine, and it has the feel of a morality tale, but without the preachiness.

Overall: These stories have just as much charm as their counterparts in A Wolf at the Door. Definitely worth checking out.

Ach, I'm a bit behind on my reading quota. The Shadow of the Wind is a novel that deserves one's full attention, and too often I find myself busy with other things. Luckily, I've got some shorter novels on the docket for when I finish this sucker. The last thing I want is to have to rush my reading again like at the end of June. I'm hoping to find a job, and if I land one, that'll make me more productive. One of those funny facts of life. The more you have to do, the more you get done. Works the same way with NaNoWriMo. Anyway, I'm out. I'll get the review for The Westing Game up soon, too.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Anybodies

Title: The Anybodies
Author: N. E. Bode (Julianna Baggott)

What it's about: When Fern was born, she was accidentally switched with another baby, and she ended up spending eleven years with Mr. and Mrs. Drudger, two people with absolutely no imagination. When she's eleven, her real father, the Bone, comes to get her. He tells her that he is an Anybody, someone who can become anybody or anything, and that Fern has probably inherited the talent. Now they have to find the secret book that belonged to Fern's mother, the book that reveals all the secrets of being a great Anybody.

What I thought: The style of this book is very interesting. We've got a third-person omniscient narrator who has no problem with conversing with the reader while telling us Fern's story. There are lots of funny references to the narrator's writing professor, as well as other asides. This book also has a great love of other books, referencing many classic stories like Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit. The story itself? Well, it's pretty good. Fern's a good protagonist, and the plot isn't bad. Dang, this is almost as bad as reviewing Moon Boy, although it's not that trippy. Let's just say that this book is weird, but in the best possible way.

Overall: Give it a chance, and you should be pleasantly surprised.

The Thief Lord

Title: The Thief Lord
Author: Cornelia Funke

What it's about: In Venice, Italy, there is a group of children who live by stealing. Prosper and Bo, two orphans running away from their aunt, fall in with these kids. The thieves are led by the Thief Lord, a boy named Scipio. At the time of the book, the Thief Lord has been approached to pull off a theft for a client in return for an amazing sum. Meanwhile, Victor Getz, a private detective, is hired to find Bo by Bo and Prosper's aunt. Prosper and Bo have to help Scipio and their friends commit the theft while avoiding being caught.

What I thought: One thing that makes me love a book is when the author loves the place they're writing about. The Kiki Strike books have this. Ananka lovingly describes New York. To Kill A Mockingbird does this, too, with Maycomb and its way of life. The Thief Lord paints a vivid and beautiful picture of Venice. Besides the lovely imagery, the story is well-told. The characters are all distinct and have their own quirks. As a bonus, the adult characters are very interesting, and I'm not just talking about Victor and Ida. Even the aunt is shown to be more than just a villain who is trying to separate Prosper and Bo. There's also a nice touch of magic to the story, too, and it's done so that it doesn't take over the story but rather aids it.

Overall: A very magical book that's worth a read.

Will Write For Chocolate

Yes, I know, I owe a bunch of updates. However, tonight I came across a webcomic I'd read before, and I thought I'd share it because it's a good comic for writers and readers. It's called Will Write For Chocolate, and it's simple but funny. I came across it when the NaNoWriMo website linked to it last November. I recommend checking it out some time.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Dark Side of Nowhere

Yeah, I know I haven't posted in a while. I've done a lot of reading, though, so I have about three more reviews, maybe four, coming up when I get to them, including several books that are favorites of mine. At the moment, I'm reading The Shadow of the Wind, and I'll recommend it in advance.

The Dark Side of Nowhere
Author: Neal Shusterman

What it's about: Jason Miller lives in the town of Billington, which is just about the most boring place you could ever imagine. Jason loathes how boring and normal his life is, but what's a ninth-grader to do about it? Then Jason's friend Ethan dies of appendicitis, the school janitor starts dropping enigmatic hints, and Jason discovers the dark secrets about his life that have been hidden under the fragile veneer of normalcy.

What I thought: This book is one of my three top favorite books ever. I reread it fairly often, and every time is just as good. First, we've got a sci-fi plot that makes sense. There's an excellent contrast between the normalcy of Billington and the exotic glimpses we get of the alien way of life. This book is also really good at making you think. Jason, the narrator, is a pretty perceptive kid, and his observations about things like mob mentality and morals are thought-provoking, but not in a way that yanks you out of the story. Jason and the rest of the characters are all well-developed. You can see why each of them act the way they do, and there are no villains for the sake of villains. Even Grant has justifications for his actions besides to be evil and obstruct Jason. Paula, also, is a pretty cool character, functioning pretty well as an outsider who doesn't have the same inside look at the alien secrets that we do. The writing itself? Excellent. Just the right blend of natural teenager narration with some more complex language and literary devices to really get across the depth that this story has.

Overall: Read this book now.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Howl's Moving Castle

Title: Howl's Moving Castle
Author: Diana Wynne Jones

What it's about: Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, and because of this, she is destined to fail. Why? Haven't you ever read fairy tales? It's always the youngest who ends up succeeding. Anyway, Sophie has resigned herself to a boring life working in the family hat shop. This is all mucked up, though, when the Witch of the Waste comes into the shop one day and casts a curse on Sophie, turning her into an old woman. Sophie, quite normally, doesn't want to be seen like this, so she sets off and tries to find a way to break the curse. She soon stumbles upon the moving castle of the Wizard Howl, and she sets herself up as Howl's housekeeper while still trying to figure out a way out of her curse.

What I thought: Plenty of magic and humor and interesting characters, all of which are to be expected from Ms. Jones, who is probably the best fantasy author ever, in my opinion. Sophie is an interesting and sympathetic main character, and this book is a funny one. It's pretty hard to say what it is that makes Diana Wynne Jones' books so amazing, but whatever that quality is, Howl's Moving Castle definitely has it.

Overall: Very fun and worth reading.

As a side note, the film version is also worth looking into. I actually saw that first. Both versions are very good, and they differ from each other so that they tell slightly different stories. Miyazaki films are always good, and when the story being told is one of Diana Wynne Jones', well, you just get something exceptional.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Hero and the Crown

Title: The Hero and the Crown
Author: Robin McKinley

What it's about: Set in the land of Damar, this story is about Aerin, daughter of the king and generally kind of an awkward girl. She doesn't have the magical abilities that the rest of the royal family has, and she takes after her mother, a woman from the North, rather than looking like anyone else from Damar. So, Aerin's kind of a misfit, and it's made worse by knowing she's a misfit, so she's kind of pretty miserable until one day she befriends her father's old lame warhorse and discovers a recipe to make fireproof ointment. Aerin takes it into her head to fight dragons, and what was first just a way to be accepted by her father and her people leads Aerin down a path she'd never dreamed of, the path of a hero.

What I thought: One thing I noticed and liked on this read-through was just how complex the sentences are. But this complexity just makes the writing richer and more enjoyable. After all, complex doesn't mean confusing. Plus, I liked the subtle humor in this. The story's pretty grand and serious, but Aerin and other characters do have senses of humor, something which makes them much more human. The story's structured interesting, with, like, the first third being all flashbacks, almost, but you forget that the beginning was set later until the story goes back to the present. It works very well, though. The descriptions are rich, and Aerin is a strong heroine who nevertheless has weaknesses. There's also a great sense of the world of Damar and its culture and everything.

Overall: This book is an excellent fantasy story.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Ender's Shadow

Title: Ender's Shadow
Author: Orson Scott Card

What it's about: It's the future. The Earth has faced off against the menace of the Buggers, insect-like aliens, twice now. The world is looking for new commanders to lead them against this threat, and the International Fleet has established Battle School, an orbiting installment that is where children are trained to be soldiers. Ender Wiggin is one such child, viewed as the most promising candidate to lead the fleet. Another child, however, is Bean, and this is his story. Bean's a street child who manages to stay alive because of his intelligence, and it's this intelligence that gets him noticed and taken to Battle School. From here, we have the story of Bean learning to excel and figuring out his place in the world, as well as learning what it is to be truly human.

What I thought: Bean is really a very interesting character to follow. His way of looking at things is very different from the norm, but that just makes the story flow really well because Bean is very logical. Also, the whole world and scenario set up in both this book and Ender's Game is frankly a very interesting one, to me, at least. Everything makes sense, the world is very realistically set up, and the characters are convincing and likable. What more do you need? There's a reason Card is known as a master of sci-fi.

Overall: Excellent read.

Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator

Title: Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator
Author: Jennifer Allison

What it's about: Gilda Joyce is a thirteen year old girl with a love of drama and mystery. Among other things, she fancies herself a novelist and a psychic investigator. Summer vacation has rolled around, and Gilda gets herself invited to stay with her mother's second cousin Lester Splinter and his daughter Juliet over the break. The California mansion where the Splinter's live is like something out of a ghost story, including the creepy tower in the backyard. To make things even creepier, Juliet's Aunt Melanie committed suicide ten years before, and Juliet thinks she sees her aunt's ghost. To Gilda, it's the perfect chance to add some excitement to her life and kick off her career as a psychic investigator.

What I thought: Like the Kiki Strike books, I thought this would be kind of shallow and dumb. I was thankfully very wrong. Gilda is of an interesting type of main character, the kind of person who's not afraid to look dumb, and consequently, she does end up looking dumb at some points. Very tenacious and dramatic, but not without doubts, either, which is a nice thing. I also have to like how the existence of the supernatural is kept ambiguous, not disproved or endorsed. Gives a nice air of mystery to things. There are some genuinely creepy moments in the book, too, but also some really funny ones. I actually laughed out loud at least once, and I'm not one to do that often. I'm definitely interested in reading more of the books in this series. If the library has the next one in stock, I'm picking it up.

Overall: A very fun and captivating book.